No easy way to tell family of breast cancer diagnosis
How do I tell my mother I have breast cancer …
By Shavonne Potts
firstname.lastname@example.orgVicki Rhyne felt like she wasn’t really there as she sat in her doctor’s office, listening to him explain what was happening to her body.
She had breast cancer. She was 39.She’d found a lump in her left breast just a few days earlier. She knew her body and knew something wasn’t right.
“I felt all along it was breast cancer,” she said.
A mammogram confirmed it. A tumor embedded in her chest wall had dislodged itself.
“I was in shock,” she said.
She had no history of breast cancer in her family. It was February of 2004, and her father, Thomas, had died the previous December of prostate and bladder cancer. How could she put her family through another ordeal, she wondered.
When Rhyne told her mother, Leota Wilcox, she cried.
“She said, ‘I can’t tell you what to do or what not to do since it’s your body. But I can tell you I cannot lose you,’ ” Rhyne recalled.
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Sitting in her car at the doctor’s office, she called a friend who was a registered nurse. Rhyne wanted advice about a possible surgeon. A nurse from the doctor’s office asked Rhyne if she was OK. She’d collected herself and was ready with a plan.
Twenty minutes later, she was scheduling an appointment for surgery. Fourteen days after that, Rhyne was having surgery to remove her left breast.
“I wanted to move that fast. For me, it couldn’t be fast enough to remove it,” Rhyne said.
The type of breast cancer Rhyne had was estrogen positive, meaning the cancer fed off the estrogen already present in her body.
She had a mastectomy on her left breast, eight rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments. She also had five lymph nodes removed. Doctors discovered the cancer had spread to three of her lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are collections of immune-system cells that fight infections.
Three weeks after surgery, Rhyne began chemotherapy, which she underwent every three weeks for about three months. Chemotherapy was followed by daily radiation. Since her doctor visits were so frequent, Rhyne eventually had a port-a-cath, or a port, inserted just under the skin.
A port is a half-dollar-sized device with a hollow space inside that is sealed by a soft top. The port is connected to a small, flexible tube called a catheter. Medications and fluids are delivered through the port and blood is withdrawn from the port so the arm veins don’t have to be stuck so often.
Rhyne also took Tamoxifen, which is given to patients to chemically shut down the ovaries and prevent the release of estrogen.
She took the drug every day for five years. She eventually was able to get reconstructive surgery.
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Leota Wilcox eventually moved from her home in Robbinsville and into her daughter’s home to take care of her. She stayed for a year.
“It was really a privilege for me to do that,” she said.
Wilcox scheduled and went to her daughter’s chemotherapy appointments. She kept up with Rhyne’s medications. She also often made her eat.
“I could hardly eat anything. Food repulsed me,” Rhyne said.
When she was able to eat, she’d sit for hours for chemotherapy treatments, sleep, eat and then be filled with so much energy, she’d drag her IV pole around, talking to others.
“After treatment, it revs you up. Then she’d want to talk all night,” Wilcox said.
When Rhyne didn’t feel like following her doctor’s orders, he’d ask, “Do you want me to call your mother?” she recalled, laughing.
Wilcox experienced some of the same things she’d gone through with her husband less than six months earlier.
“I tried to encourage her, but some days were tough,” Wilcox said.
The family did a lot of praying, she said.
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A clump of Rhyne’s hair came out one day in the shower, so she decided to cut it short.
It wasn’t until she cut her hair short that she looked in the mirror and came to the realization that she really was sick, Rhyne said.
“I was very upset,” she said.
Wilcox let her daughter cry and grieve and then, together, they pressed forward.
Although she took it all in stride, she had her rituals. She never left the house without a bandanna or a wig on her head.
Rhyne’s sister, Donna Lewis, would rush her out the door if they were going somewhere. But Rhyne had to make sure she “didn’t look sick,” she said.
She was careful to put on a wig and some makeup.
Eventually, she had lost all of her hair except her eyelashes. Rhyne was so proud she’d kept them that she washed her face gently.
One hot day, she got into her car and turned the air conditioning on high. In a matter of seconds, she lost every single lash. They blew into her eyes, on her face and throughout her car.
She pulled over and called her mom, laughing the whole time.
“I said, ‘Mom, they finally left.’ ”
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Once the two got accustomed to doctor visits, medicines and getting better, they found laughter was healing.
“There are times when you laugh and when you cry,” Rhyne said.
The diagnosis took its toll on Rhyne’s sister, Donna, and her daughter, Meredith, who was 7 at the time.
The young girl had just seen her grandfather go through a slow, two-year deterioration, and she was afraid the same thing would happen to her aunt.
Meredith became so worried she would throw up every night before bed. She began seeing a psychologist to help her cope with her aunt’s illness.
It took Meredith some time to learn that, “Just because a person had cancer it didn’t always mean they would die,” Lewis said.
Rhyne made certain her niece understood what she was experiencing and reassured her she would “beat it.”
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Rhyne was sick for so long, she forgot how to be well.
After her treatments, she underwent a wellness regimen for her mind, body and spirit that included physical therapy, massage therapy, counseling and a nutrition plan.
“That let’s you heal physically and mentally,” Rhyne said.
The massage therapy helped her to relax and to be less self-conscious about her body.
Wilcox attended the wellness classes with Rhyne. The two went to yoga together. They’d roll around on the floor until neither one could get up, laughing throughout most of the class, Wilcox said.
Rhyne’s doctor told her that her mental attitude about her cancer would determine half her outcome.
“You embrace it or wallow in it,” she said.
The key is to believe that, “It’s a journey, go with it,” Rhyne said.
Many people didn’t know what to say to Rhyne or were afraid they’d say the wrong thing, but more often than not, her friends joined in on the laughter.
“My friends were supportive. I had phone calls and cards. I always had a ton of cards,” she said.
It became a daily routine for her to check her mailbox and find several cards inside, which she enjoyed receiving.
“Cards make all the difference in the world,” she said.
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Retail therapy was also a part of her healing process. There were days when she and her Maltese, Emma, never left her bed, but her fingers were on the computer, shopping. Rhyne figured that if she was forced to stay in bed, she was going to buy something.
When her appetite returned, she only drank milkshakes and ate fruit.
The first time she ate a real meal, it was blueberry pancakes. She cried because she could actually taste them. The chemotherapy and radiation had altered the taste of food.
Rhyne has been cancer free for five years. After that length of time, patients have a low risk of the disease reoccurring.
She says being aware of her own body helped her discover the lump.
Rhyne, who also facilitates a support group called Living in Pink at Rowan Regional Medical Center, is owner of Hendricks Business Solutions.